This Side of Japan's 100 Favorite Idol Songs of 2020
The year's best songs from idol groups like RYUTist, Dempagumi.inc, Los An Jewels and more
Hi! Welcome to the year-end portion of This Side of Japan, a newsletter about Japanese music, new and old. Our December issues are dedicated to the best Japanese songs of 2020. You can check out previous issues here.
If there was any year that music could’ve potentially been a secondary concern for idols, it may have been 2020. COVID-19 put a complete halt on live shows, moving the idol scene almost entirely on the internet. Engagement events still went on but on a digital venue. Cheki photos got signed on a web broadcast, and handshake events were now screen to screen. The idol lifestyle got even busier with them participating in music while building new YouTube channels, hopping on routine live streams and trying out new apps to maintain their relationship with fans. They were singers but now also YouTubers, TikTok dancers, Twitch streamers, Instagram influencers, an all-around social media guru.
Thankfully, the new songs did not stop, and music remained a priority. If anything, idol music became more necessary for emotional relief during such a heavy time. My blurbs for this year’s top 10 songs are full of talk about idol songs helping me see my world a little brighter. Providing hope is what idols do best after all, and their inspiring messages came in all sorts of different shapes, sounds and styles. Here are my 100 favorite idol songs of 2020.
You can listen to the songs featured here on this Spotify playlist. You can also view this as a text list here.
1. Carry Loose: “Ningen”
“People are great after all.” After all that has happened in the past 12 months, it seems laughable to take this conclusion to heart before confidently moving on to the next year. Perhaps needlessly to say, 2020 let people from every level of the social strata reveal their true rotten core whether it’d be from their handling of the pandemic or their responses to the political strife all over the world.
Does Carry Loose themselves still have faith in the lyric they’ve once sung in “Ningen”? Their company head announced that the group will be no more after almost three months of being made to live together under one roof until they can debut on a major label. All of the idols’ hard work since their debut last November had led to a heartbreaking end, and Carry Loose’s dissolution hurts even more considering that three out of the four members have already dealt with a group break-up before. Another chance to become something gone.
Carry Loose had faced a mountain of doubts concerning their own success in “Ningen” even before the debacle, and yet the four succeeds in rebuilding faith in the human potential by being that very example of personal change. While Uruu Ru provides a weathered voice for their internal struggle in the chorus — “‘let’s try to do everything we’re supposed to do’ / Everyone says it so easily / ‘You can do it if you try’ / but is that really true,” she worries —the bubbly Yumeka Naukana gives the final word of epiphany: “We can do it over and over again / people are great after all.” I can’t help but to join her side after hearing her embrace such an attitude and perspective with that happy-go-lucky voice, especially after she and her group sing about coming up from the emotional bottom themselves. For a few fleeting minutes, Carry Loose help regain my trust and that it’s worth pushing forward.
2. Caeca: “Pop-La”
The name Caeca translates to “a blooming,” and the freshly debuted group in “Pop-La” indeed sound thrilled to tackle a new world filled with limitless possibilities. Bright, tactile plucks of organs and harpsichords give a vibrant glow, and the beat skips with life just like the picturesque scenes of nature that the idols take in with awe. But more than spring greenery, the group is marveled by pop music itself and the magic it can bring: “Let’s sing a la la la / the kind that announces a start,” they harmonize in the chorus with hope they can one day be as inspiring as their own favorite, life-changing songs. Caeca look to the world with such glitter in their eye, and it’s an outlook too precious not to preserve.
3) RYUTist: “Alive”
Whenever I listen to “Alive,” I can’t shake off the thought suggested by Kazumi Nanba, the head of RYUTist’s record label Penguin Discs, of an alternate spring where the pandemic didn’t hit and we were free to be outdoors without consequence. The music indeed brings to mind a dreamy, idyllic scenery through its lush arrangements that patiently bloom and blossom. The idols take it all with their five senses, caught in awe about the wonder that surrounds them. With the aid of beatific music, RYUTist makes the world anew.
4. “OK!” by Lyrical School
The call in “OK!” to seize the day could’ve been a tough one to take to heart had it not been delivered by the idols of Lyrical School. Their charm and charisma alone help turn the lyrics into more attractive sentiments: “We don’t stop, we don’t stop / it doesn’t stop, it doesn’t end / there’s no, no, no reason for us to not keep singing,” the bubbly Hinako raps, navigating one mouthful of a rhyme. But above all, it’s the visible effort put in by the idols that truly convince.
It’s apparent that the verses of “OK!” are physically demanding to rap. Not only do the producers stuff each line with a load of words and key phrases, they also direct the idols to lay down some off-kilter cadences. Almost all the idols sound if not slightly tripped up then definitely transparent about how challenging it all is. But that effort to push themselves, and crucially, the pure fun they seem to be having despite it all, elevates the lyrics as well as their credibility. That ability to blindly accept a challenge and have a dumb smile while doing so is a quality to admire from Lyrical School.
5. EMPiRE: “Ordinary”
“It’s OK to relax,” Now EMPiRE assures in the most grand, stately rock music to grace the group’s singles. It’s a sincere sentiment that I needed to hear from a pop song as my world grew increasingly uncertain, and EMPiRE offer a much needed moment of peace in “Ordinary” via a captivating score of post-rock. After the group patiently reminds that it’s fine to slow down once in a while, the song peaks with a divine, Explosions in the Sky-esque guitar screech. “Maybe it’s OK today,” Maho EMPiRE sings in the chorus, asking to put life on hold. “Ordinary” answers to that call.
6) Yanakoto Sotto Mute: “Afterglow”
Yanakoto Sotto Mute smooth out the jaggedness as well as their more frantic rhythms for their major-label debut. The melancholy, however, remains potent, and the group go as far as doubling down, borrowing the ascending course of post-rock to harness the visceral feeling to its maximum potential. “Since that day, half of me has been far away, sleeping with you,” they sigh over a pensive piano riff, picking up the pieces bit by bit until the towering guitars peak and provide the clarity they’ve been working to find: “From now on, let me wake up from you.”
7. Juice=Juice: “Sukitte Itteyo”
The relationship at the heart of the song’s narrative is frustrating: “If I said ‘I love you’ / I don’t want ‘thank you’ / Tell me ‘I love you’ like I do,” goes the chorus — the girls got to lose this guy, fast. But it is how Juice=Juice get to the chorus that impresses me every time. They take a stroll through the pre-chorus, basking in those rhymes like they’re doing some last-minute stretches until the big show; the second verse is especially finely tied together, with the group passing the mic from one member to another until star vocalist Ruru Dambara finally takes it away. The structuring and pacing of “Sukitte Itteyo” is superb, and I spent much of quarantine wishing I could sing it in the car while driving somewhere.
8. “Kokoro & Karada” by Morning Musume ‘20
While the busyness of EDM has historically made for great moments in a Morning Musume single from the past decade, the best part of “Kokoro & Karada” finds the group manipulating time and space to let the song drift in what feels like zero-gravity atmosphere. The distortion of time resembles what it must be like to encounter love at first sight with anything but their subject of desire blurred out of focus and view. From such a freeing, precious segment emerges a grand epiphany — “I love you, yes, I love you” — propelled by an explosive future-bass drop, a sound and feeling in which the idols surrender to with complete trust.
9. SAKA-SAMA: “Ex/cla/ma/tion/!!”
SAKA-SAMA has left no stone unturned since becoming a duo last year, trying out city pop, dub, post-punk, folk and whatever else Trash-Up!! Records deems suiting for the two. Still, after all the genre-dabbling, their dive into gabber in “Ex/cla/ma/tion/!!” was the most unexpected but also, my, the most satisfying. The evil beat rages on, but Mizuho and Kokone perform unfazed, shining at the center like classic ’80s idols. “Us, we are twin planets,” they declare. They stand more like the Sun, and the cluster of genres can’t help but revolve around them.
10) RAY: “Everything About My Precious You”
If their predecessors Dots Tokyo indulged in the noise and anonymity of shoegaze, RAY zero in on the unrequited, hard-to-place emotions suggested by the guitar-pop subgenre. Despite dealing with obviously different textures and styles, the approach isn’t so different from traditional idol-pop in a way: they both make best use of their tools to communicate their devotion to their one and only. “Ah, your lovely name / I want to call out to you / again and again / until I lose my voice,” isn’t too far out of an idol lyric, but this being shoegaze, it’s sung through passive sighs as they admire the one from a afar. The song further grows in scale as do their desire, the music elevating the feeling into something beyond what words could describe.
11. Dempagumi.inc: “Moshi Moshi Internet”
While clumsy, frenzied music fueled a rambunctious energy for Dempagumi, it gives way to more confusion in the jazzy “Moshi Moshi Internet.” The rambles are just as scrambled as the music, but despite their wistful sighs, the idols know exactly where they stand in these unstable times.
12) Negicco: “Gozen 0ji No Sympathy”
Negicco’s soft pop gets a lush electro-pop twist, made over into a sophisticated midnight disco. The three dress up to fit the sensual mood, hanging up their bubbly personas as they head out in search of a more adult Friday night. A Hitomi Toi collaboration was in their cards, but this exceeded expectations.
13) Tsubaki Factory: “Dakishimeraretemitai”
As suggested by the title — “I Want to Be Embraced” — a deep yearning for touch and attention fuels the latest episode of Tsubaki Factory’s heated internal drama. Just speaking up can easily break the spell, but with this much emotional pressure, can you blame them for not speaking up?
14) Kaede: “Jupiter”
If Kaede’s January album was a collection of quiet, country-side folk, yearning to unite with her one and only, “Jupiter” is the much-anticipated reunion. “Jupiter, let’s even travel to outer space one day / a world where there’s no one else / just us two,” the idol delightfully sings over starry, delicate jazz-pop.
15) 22/7: “Muzui”
Suiting for a show that seems like half origin story, half music-industry conspiracy thriller, 22/7’s title track to their anime series exploits the drama of their dark backstory with a maudlin string arrangement. Their constant mid-song dialogues, reminiscent of Keyakizaka46’s playbook, echo just as anxious.
16) BED IN: “We Are BED IN”
The Bubble-nostalgic duo re-introduce themselves by doing their signature best: hamming it all up. If the shiny keyboard lines and the flamboyant guitars didn’t make their throwback concept loud and clear, Kaori Masukodera kicks down the doors with vocals like a glam-metal diva.
17) Sway Emotions Slightly: “Parade”
Sway Emotions Slightly hone in on what they call “neo-emotional rock,” and “Parade” revs up buzzing, melancholic riffs not too out of place in a ’00s emo-rock record. The idols scream over the noise, and their voices only intensify as the guitars grow faster while the reverb washes out the song.
18) E-girls: “Bessekai”
“Are you ready to see another world,” E-girls inquire in the titular refrain of “Bessekai” (“Another World”). With news about their disbandment, it’s bittersweet to hear them sing about taking flight into a new era. They save the tears for later, though, letting a gliding garage-house beat guide their way.
19) Genin Wa Jibun Ni Aru: “Shakespeare Ni Manabu Renai Teiri”
GenJibu complicate their artsy-ness in a charming way, solving the guitar-noodling with lyrical cheesiness that, of course, references the playwright: “An unpredictable Shakespeare love story? / a kiss of to be or not to be,” goes the chorus, revealing a soft center despite their efforts.
20) Mellow Mellow: “Saikou Kessaku”
“Saikou Kessaku” proves Mellow Mellow don’t have to sacrifice their soft-pop aesthetic to keep up their rep as a sharp dance-pop act, and the trio look to their trusted funk music to get their feelings across: “I can’t fool myself/ because I love you so much,” they sing in the chorus, sounding natural and free.
21) Seireki13ya: “Baby Baby Cupid”
After diving into para para and future bass, Seireiki13ya indulge in carbonated pop that zigzags into all sorts of directions like it’s trying to temper the song before it gets too sweet.
22) Tokyo Girls’ Style: “Bara No Kinbaku”
The times seem to be finally catching up to Tokyo Girls’ Style. The retro-funk and city-pop nostalgia that the group flirted with early on in their careers are in vogue, and so when they revisit it in “Bara No Kinbaku,” they fit so smoothly like a glove. Rather than a plain feelgood dance, however, they use the flashy pop as the background to a more adult, treacherous romance, and the idols’ voices remain cautious as they cozy up to the luxurious beat.
23) Sora Tob Sakana: “Signal”
While the trio’s past hits ignited beautifully like fireworks, their swan song is a dim spark that finds them wandering without a clear path in sight.
24) Angerme: “Mirror Mirror”
The disco beat shines glamorous, their voices ring powerful and confident, but the lyrics express the contrary as the Hello! Project group stare into their reflecting flaws.
25) CYNHN: “Suisei”
CYNHN passes on words of encouragement to help others swim out of the dark metaphorical waters, and the math-rock-adjacent guitars riff restlessly to match the ambition.
26) Los An Jewels: “Drink Up”
Los An Jewels carried the torch this year from the now-defunct Koutei Camera Girl Drei, continuing the group’s dive into today’s internet-bred hip-hop. The three toyed with various flows and outside styles, sometimes burying themselves deep in the digital debris, but the most memorable, “Drink Up,” ties all the experiments back to pop. Their Auto-Tune-drenched raps and hooks land delightfully sweet against the colorful, fizzy hip-hop beat.
27. RilisReverse: “Natsuiro”
The gothic electro-pop synths of Rilisreverse’s “Natsuiro” summon a doomed alt-pop, still haunted by the spirit of their former group Hamidasystem.
28. Sandal Telephone: “Follow You Follow Me”
The more upbeat their rich funk music gets, the more Sandal Telephone needs this love to go from a URL crush to IRL official.
29) Ukka: “Koi, Ichibanme”
The funky beat gets the idols formerly known as Sakura Ebis ready to tackle the new — the year’s first crush of the season but also their fresh start as Ukka.
30) Melon Batake A Go Go: “Pirate Queen Amazones”
The title of Melon Batake A Go Go’s lead single alone suggest a character straight out of a legend, and their garage-rock delivers on that promise with its jangling exuberance.
31) Busujima Orochi: “Kollapse”
A brighter surface to its frantic dance beat doesn’t mean a happier song from Busujima Orochi: “In an empty room, I want to disappear,” the solo idol sings in the chorus, framing the fast tempo as more a side effect from rising anxiety than excitement.
32) B.O.L.T.: “Axis”
The future of B.O.L.T during its early days frankly seemed unclear as their new line-up — two leftover members of the now-defunct Rock A Japonica paired with two young Stardust trainees — looked very uneven. Their new music this year, however, exceeded expectations with happy-go-lucky pop punk that competes with bands proper doing the same. A gut-punching riff in particular kicks in some much needed energy to the group in “Axis,” who are feeling a bit insecure about where they’re headed.
33) Yureru Landscape: “Natsu No Hate”
Yureru Landscape lighten up their tense alt-rock to offer summer relief, ushering in breezy riffs and sentimental lyrics.
34) Kimi To Boku No Kakumei: “Z”
Kimi To Boku No Kakumei’s scrappy punk song doesn’t even clock in a full minute, but they make more than enough of a fun, rambunctious mess in such a short span of time.
35) Risa Aizawa: “Abnormal Q”
For her contribution of Dempagumi solo songs, Risa Aizawa tackles a textbook wowaka production full of upside-down guitars and clashing piano riffs—but as if a whirlwind of sounds is anything foreign to her.
36) Cametre: “Dattara”
Never mind the irony of a now-disbanded group singing this: the peppy funk help Cametre shake off their want to give up and keep on going another day.
37) Yumegiwa Last Girl: “Daiyusei”
The dreamy math rock makes its way back down to reality, and so do Yumegiwa Last Girl, who can’t fully embrace the belief that they matter in this doomed world.
38) Dai Dai Dai: “Aine Kuraine”
Just wait until a minute or so in when the zany beat goes into massive breakdown of assaulting drums and synths.
39) 963: “Lumen”
The electro touches of “Lumen” hit the sophistication that their one-offs from last year aimed for in their stylistic mix of idol hip-hop and dreamy synth-pop without losing 963’s main charm.
40) Rirunede: “Mou Watashi Wo Suki Ni Natteru Kimie”
The trio fully indulges in Yamashita Sho’s funk pomp as more a performance than a recording, and the animated verses are a joy to watch play out in action as it is to listen to: the verbal tug-of-war between Mizuki Kirihara and Mayu Kurihara audibly rocks you back and forth. The three continue to freely half-talk, half-sing as if keeping in tune to the melody just get in the way of their internal rambles, and their mind only grows more restless as they soon realize where all this anticipation stems from.
41) Meme Tokyo: “Suicide Borderless”
It’s a shame that Meme Tokyo’s more adventurous material is relegated as B-sides. “Suicide Borderless” runs almost separate from the bubblier pop of its A-side, “Moratorium Aquarium,” bending the dance beat into a zipping funk with sounds that flash right by before your eyes. The idols throw dense lyrics to the page just as speedy, like a string of text chains fired off all at once.
42) Kindan No Tasuketsu: “Don’t Cry Baby”
Kindan No Tasuketsu provides this song as an excuse to forget about your troubles while the sparkling, balmy synth-pop sets up the mood for a mental vacation.
43) Hitomi Arai: “Koi No Mirage”
The Tokyo Girls’ Style member’s path as a retro solo idol star continues, this time embracing a glistening, glamorous synth-funk beat to dance the night away—it probably does not surprise that Night Tempo remixed it.
44) Hakushi No Reboot: “Solitude”
Wired guitars underneath the somber pianos capture the loud, clashing state of emotions of Hakushi No Reboot, who wish someone could please see through their stateliness and recognize the mess happening inside of their heads.
45) Crossnoesis: “My Last Dance”
The pensive mix of synths and alt-rock fittingly inspires Crossnoesis to re-evaluate their purpose, and their commitment to keep going despite the tough times — “hello my last dance / I’m going to keep dancing / embracing this morning I won’t forget / at this place that I chose,” the chorus goes — resonate more as its made literal as words to sing on stage.
46) Megamegami: “Still Underground”
While Megamegami up their game by cutting straight to the beats in the hard bass A-side, the flip side goes even harder in speed and aggression.
47) PIGGS: “Kumanbachi No Dokuhaku”
PIGG’s more straightforward dive into punk inspires them to get loose and abandon melody in the verses, but the choruses feel twice as catchy and memorable when they return to the song.
48) Nogizaka46: “I See…”
While Nogizaka46’s senior generations made bigger headlines — graduations here, a Tetsuya Komuro collaboration there — the fourth generation charmed best with this heart-fluttering funk.
49) Iginari Touhokusan: “re;star”
The string of rapid pianos and angular guitars add sophistication to the young Stardust group, who adapts to the complex beat without missing a step.
50) Keyakizaka46: “Dare Ga Sono Kane Wo Narasunoka?”
The group doesn’t hold back for their last single as Keyakizaka. The music is as maudlin as their past hits, their verses as quick and jam-packed, and they continue to go into deep, brooding introspection about the titular question: who will be the chosen one to ring the metaphorical bell to clear the world from the noise? They’ve already made their stance on the subject clear as day on the debut, “Silent Majority” — to hell with leaders and collectivism, just focus on yourself — and their answer proves they haven’t changed in the slightest.
51) Migma Shelter: “Unbirthday”
52) BiS: “Curtain Call”
53) Burst Girl: “Against the Drain”
54) The Dance for Philosophy: “Don’t Stop the Dance”
55) Mawase! Groove Kaihatsubu: “#FFFFFF”
56) Nuance: “Hatsukoi Pedal”
57) Sayonara Ponytail: “Shion”
58) Tiptoe.: “Haru No Fuusoku, Cho Ga Yurete”
59) Mic Raw Ruga: “Seeyou (Let’s Dance)”
60) Cho Tokimeki Sendenbu: “Shibuya Tsutaya Mae De Machiawasene!”
61) POMERO: “2484”
62) Atarashii Gakkou No Leaders: “Otonablue”
63) Mameshiba No Taigun: “Donkusa Happy”
64) Crown Pop: “Masshiro Kataomoi”
65) Kamiyado: “Ashita, Kimi Ni Aeru”
66) Awww!: “Seishun Wa Mijikairashii”
67) O’Chawanz: “After Five”
68) Egg Princess: “Kimi No Sei Desho”
69) Reni Takagi: “Dancing Reni-chan”
70) Watashi, Mugendai: “Itoahare”
71) JO1: “Oh-Eh-Oh”
72) Paradises: “Twinkle Twinkle”
73) FAKY: “Little More”
74) Shuhatsu-machi Underground: “Koudenatsu Hankou Shojo”
75) STU48: “Mubou Na Yume Wa Sameru Koto Ga Nai”
76) Junjo No Afilia: “Like? Or Love?”
77) SKE48/Jurina Matsui: “Who Are You?”
78) Nao☆ (Negicco): “Inuke! Midnight”
79) Frun Frin Friends: “Lemon-iro Bakudan”
80) Orbit: “Universe”
81) Zenbu Kimi No Seida: “Insomnia”
82) Malcolm Mask McLaren: “Unfinished”
83) Last Idol: “Ayafuya”
84) Notall: “2dome No Hatsukoi Wa Sonzaishita”
85) Up Up Girls (2): “Ame Ni Utaeba”
86) Sui Sui: “Konomama”
87) Tokyo Rockets: “Masquerade”
88) @onefive: “Shizuku”
89) Idolater: “Not Your Fault”
90) Fantastics from Exile Tribe: “High Fever”
91) Toricago: “Soregashi”
92) WAgg: “WAgg No Subarashiki Sekai”
93) OWV: “So Picky”
94) Wagamama Rakia: “Rain”
95) Rosette: “I Want to Be a Melon”
96) Eimie: “Klaxon”
97) BenjaminJasmine: “Saibou”
98) NELN: “WanderVogel”
99) Nani’n’Nerun?: “Boys Be Anarchy”
100) NiziU: “Make You Happy”
The next issue of This Side of Japan is out December 15. You can check out previous issues here. You can listen to the songs featured in this list in this Spotify playlist.
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